Last night after a good dinner and a couple of glasses of wine I started idly pondering what it was that attracted me (a 40ish white woman) to Barack Obama so strongly that I was never able to seriously consider Hillary Clinton as a candidate. (And also, why I was so sensitive to her RFK comment). Here's what I came up with.
I was born in November of 1968. The Summer of Love was over. The Chicago police had already deployed the tear gas. And all of the heroes were already dead.
I don't know how much my mother mourned Martin Luther King and RFK while I was gestating, through April and May and summer of 1968. She wasn't very countercultural. But I know that I came out already a cynic, imbued with skepticism and a cool detachment. From the time I was very young, my parents would tell their friends "she's (however many years old I was) going on 40".
I was rocked in the cradle of the American misadventure in Vietnam.
My first memories of television are twofold: I remember the Hanna-Barbera cartoon "Josie and the Pussycats", and I remember the Watergate scandal and the televised Watergate hearings. In my lifetime, presidents were always bad men.
Always, that is, except for Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was a good man and he was going to put us back on track. But then we were tricked. We were October Surprised. And I admit, to my shame, that when I was 12 years old I voted for John Anderson, the independent, in the 1980 mock election at my junior high school. I couldn't ever bring myself to vote for Reagan. And as it became clear that we had been October Surprised, I became a lifelong Democrat. With the exception of one or two local elections I have never voted for anything but a Democrat since.
My teenage years were full of Central American death squads and dictators and Ronald Reagan's paramilitary misadventures. For other people, it might have been "morning in America" but it turned into five minutes to midnight pretty quickly if you were at all interested in the news of the world. My family belonged to a Unitarian Universalist church, and we got (and read) the newspaper, and there was a pretty active Sanctuary movement in my town so I couldn't miss all the bad things that were going down in the world with our blessing and support. The murder of El Salvadoran Jesuits by US-supported right wing death squads was my "birthright" as an American; aside from the Challenger explosion and the Iran-Contra affair (which effectively went unpunished) that is the event from that period which is seared into my memory.
I participated in the debate team in high school and my favorite teacher (RIP Jeff Stockwell) openly called himself a socialist and deliberately led us to critique and question American policies, but I had already got to that point on my own. I recognized the affinity between our Republicans and the murderous right wing dictatorships that assassinated or "disappeared" people...and I recognized the similarity between those victims and my family -- when they weren't just poor and defenseless, they were so often liberals, often educated, often professors (like my dad, and like I wanted to be).
In college I saw Michael Dukakis Willie Hortoned and my friends and I watched on the TV in the dorm as he went down in flames in the 1988 election. And then we had a truly bad man as President, a spymaster with narrow weaselly little eyes and a secretive mien.
I was on the wrong side of all the Democratic primary contests in the 90s and 00s. I favored Jerry Brown over Bill Clinton and I favored Bill Bradley over Al Gore and then I favored Howard Dean over John Kerry and every single time my favorite candidate was hustled out and the more centrist candidate got the prize and then disappointed us deeply by losing, or (almost more egregiously) by bending over backwards to compromise, compromise, compromise and in the end turning out to be only partially a genius and a good part buffoon and a little bit of a bad man himself.
Which brings us to Barack Obama.
For the first time in my life, I can imagine a president who would be a good man, who at least holds the ideal of keeping his hands clean, and who might be the modern version of the good-government presidents I learned about from the time I was a child: Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK. I can imagine that with Obama at the helm my contemporaries and I might have our own Camelot, even for just a little while. A woman president someday would be great. But right now, a president who stands in opposition to the kind of American politics I have witnessed in all of my almost-40 years is more important.